Thursday 17 January 2019

Schmidt shuffle set to lift Blues

Leinster v Treviso, The RDS, tonight 7.10 (live RTé2)

Coach Joe Schmidt certainly likes to mix and match from week-to-week. Despite the absence of his international contingent, he has opted for four changes to the side which wilted away to Cardiff Blues.

Schmidt's former Auckland Blue protégé Isa Nacewa will deservedly lead Leinster out as their captain. If ever a full-back could lead from the front, it is Nacewa.

The almost unseen Ed O'Donoghue was imported to ease the pain of Malcolm O'Kelly's retirement. He has played seven times, three as a replacement. He needs to produce and quickly.

Left wing Dave Kearney returns for the previously out-of-position Niall Morris and Stephen Keogh will pack down at number eight, primarily, presumably because of Rhys Ruddock's difficulty in dealing with the ball at the base against Cardiff.

Most importantly, Cook Island international Stan Wright, a firm fans' favourite, will start for the first time this season. He made an immediate impact in the scrum on his second-half re-appearance against Cardiff Blues last Saturday.

Leinster's seven-match unbeaten sequence came to a sorry end in Cardiff. They could not generate any momentum up front and manufactured precious few opportunities. The Italians have fared admirably in their first Magners season. They have won three of their last five, without a win on the road all season.

Treviso are sitting comparatively pretty in eighth with a worthy 50pc winning return from their 14 matches. They also registered a home win over Leinster back in September.

That was another world when Leinster were in the middle of their rocky start to the season, but this time they will be driven by their chase for a home quarter-final.

Verdict: Leinster.

Leinster: I Nacewa (capt); A Conway, E O'Malley, E Sheridan, D Kearney; I McKinley, I Boss; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, S Wright, E O'Donoghue, D Toner, K McLaughlin, D Ryan, S Keogh.

Treviso: J Maddock; M Sepe, E Galon, A Vilk, B de Jager; W de Waal, L Nitoglia; M Rizzo, M Ceccato, I Fernandez-Rouyet, A Pavanello (capt), C van Zyl, B Vermaak, G Padro, M Fillipucci.

Munster on Air' raid

Aironi v Munster, St Zafanella, Sunday 2.0

For all the caveats about Munster's present state of affairs, the bandwagon keeps rolling towards a Magners home semi-final, most likely as the regular season first seeds. The Italians showed what a cantankerous lot they can be at The RDS, especially during the international windows. But, they succumbed 18-3 to The Dragons at home last Sunday. That level of form will not be good enough to halt Munster's progress with the half-backs employed to put close-in power runners and backline over the gain line.

Verdict: Munster

Ulster's double take

Ulster v Cardiff Blues, Ravenhill, tonight 7.05

Springbok Ruan Pienaar turned a losing bonus point into four winning points with one swing of his right boot in the pouring rain in Edinburgh in the last round. They are right on the coattails of fourth-placed Leinster, five points in arrears with a game-in-hand. These are the days for which Ulster has invested. They can also do Munster and Leinster a favour by taking second-placed Cardiff Blues down. Ulster have also won three out of four against Welsh opponents this season and can put a sudden stop to the Blues four-game winning stretch, thereby securing the double over Cardiff for their first time in six seasons.

Verdict: Ulster

Ulster: A D'Arcy, A Trimble, N Spence, L Marshall, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; B Young, A Kyriacou, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (capt), T Barker, C Henry, W Faloon, P Wannenburg.

Cardiff Blues: D Fish; R Mustoe, G Evans, D Hewitt, T James; C Sweeney, R Downes; T Filise, R Thomas, R Andrews, D Jones, P Tito (capt), A Pretorius, M Williams, X Rush.

Connacht to sink Ospreys

Ospreys v Connacht, Liberty Stadium, Sunday 2.30

There aren't many more difficult places to go to record a third win on the spin for a Connacht side in unchartered waters.

Still, The Ospreys are short many regulars, including Tommy Bowe, as they contemplate a Connacht outfit on the up. Eric Elwood's tribe have won their last four matches in the Magners and Challenge Cup. It is their best run in eight seasons. While their record on the road is poor, this could be their breakthrough hour.

Verdict: Connacht

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